On 19th September 2018, New Zealand Suffrage celebrated 125 years. And rightly so.
We were the first country in the Commonwealth to graduate a female with a Bachelor of Arts. We boast the first woman ever ordained into Anglican priesthood, and the first pilot (incidentally, yes, a woman) to fly direct from England to New Zealand.
And, as our suffrage celebrations show, we were also the first country in the world to allow women a vote in a political election.
It’s been 125 years since Kate Sheppard (commemorated on our NZ$10 note) and her 32,000 gathered signatures presented their 270-meter-long petition to New Zealand Parliament. 125 years since Aotearoa rocked the globe with its drastic step towards an equal democracy. 125 years since we began to take those first steps towards a change in matters that should not have needed to be changed at all.
Where are we?
But in case you think that the passing of well over a century has surely evened things out, let some of the current stats speak for themselves:
- In the NZX 50 (New Zealand Stock Market), there are more CEOs named John than CEOS who are women.
- In 2015, women's participation on New Zealand’s private sector boards was 17 percent.
- On average, women retire with nearly $80,000 less in their KiwiSaver than men.
- In 2018, the gender gap in New Zealand stands at 9.2%, meaning women’s wages are approximately 9% less than that of their male colleagues.
You may think the numbers are not too bad, but as a Kiwi woman in 2018, I read this as a statement of shame. Somehow, not even the passing of 125 years has lifted my status, input and value to be equal to that of a man. And so far we have only mentioned the professional arena.
Are we there yet?
Gender equality is a sticky subject at best. A party-pooping conversation silencer the rest of the time.
I suppose there are many who find it eternally frustrating that I continue to beat this drum. But do remember that it is equally frustrating for me to be paid less or harassed more simply because of my gender. And should I speak up regarding either scenario, I may well be ignored or even disbelieved, again because of my gender.
Equality: synonymous with humanity?
It’s very important that you do not read into my words what I am NOT saying. I am not saying that women must be given supreme rights and privileges above men. I am not even suggesting that men must fall so that women may rise.
Rather, I am asking why – after 125 years – it is still necessary for women to pander to the structure of a patriarchal society, or even outright fight, for a seat at the table of mere humanity.
That’s right, all we want is our humanity. We want to be respected, appreciated, validated as the human beings that we are.
Gender discrimination: a selective choice?
Discrimination is nothing new, but for some reason the world chooses which issues will be righted, and which ones will be battles that go on far longer than they should.
But why are these battles so petty, unfounded and – let’s be honest – ridiculous? Why do we decide that someone’s skin colour invalidates them, but not their eye colour?
How compliant would we be if all right-handed people were paid a lesser wage than left-handed people? Would we think it normal if brown-eyed people were refused a voice in politics, despite being greater in number than blue-eyed people? And what if the gender imbalance was reversed? Would we consider it acceptable if our husbands, sons and brothers were mistreated and underpaid and belittled for no reason other than their gender?
Of course not.
Why aren’t we there yet?
So why do I still have to fight for a voice? Why do I have to take being overlooked and underpaid with meek acceptance? Why is my competence judged first and foremost according to my gender?
Why is my intuition labelled as "over sensitivity"? Why is my intelligence "impertinence"? Why is my boldness "unbecoming"?
Why is it normal in 2018 that younger women are trained by older women on how to “diffuse” a situation, because we know that not only does it go down better in board rooms but it may well save my life should an angsty male exert his dominance and I am caught in an unwelcome situation where I must I must I must diffuse because he has ultimate power and if this goes badly it will always be my fault?
And – most distressing of all – why do I keep being told this is not an issue, and that gender inequality is all in my head?
Because let me assure you that it has been my personal experience to be paid less, professionally ignored, and openly harassed because of my gender. I have literally wept with the anger and humiliation of being seen and treated as less.
Less worthy. Less valid. Less than equal. And all because I supposedly have the wrong body parts to hold a competent brain and a worthy heart.
I am tired of cursing the fact that I was born a woman, in a man’s world.
I just want to get there.
So here and now, on the eve of 125 years of suffrage in our beautiful country, I find both a smile and a tear in my heart.
I am grateful – so grateful – for the brave and bold women before me who dared to speak so that my vote would count. I am honoured to stand in their legacy and to know that my voice can count for some things, if not yet all things. I am proud that a woman currently heads our country – not because she is better than a man, but because she is equal in capability and presence and worth, and she knows it.
But I am also sad – so sad – that I cannot yet promise the next generation a reign of unconditional equality.
Will we ever get there?
Until our Kiwi women match the wages of our Kiwi men; until our Kiwi girls can walk down the street without fear of “invoking” unwelcome attentions; until we as the trendsetting country that we are can stand united in our humanity, regardless of whether we are left-handed or right-handed or ambidextrous…
Until then, I will speak out and stand up and refuse to back down.
Because I have this crazy hope that one day – someday – my daughters and my sons will stand upon this land and know that they are counted as equal in their humanity, regardless of their gender.
I hope that they will be free to lift their heads high and smile, and say with utmost confidence:
“We did it.”
“We made it.”
Emma is an Italian-South African with a New Zealand passport and an international heart. She spent years running a puppet ministry and directing student choirs, before going on to serve with Mission Aviation Fellowship in New Zealand (7 years) and Papua New Guinea (3 years). Currently a nomad living between various countries and towns as she ponders the future, Emma's deep joy is in writing, music, hearing people’s stories and finding God in unexpected places.
Emma McGeorge’s previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/emma-mcgeorge.html